Miami Herald features Commentary by IRI’s Alex Sutton

How life really is in Cuba
The Miami Herald

While the topic of future U.S. policy toward Cuba has been as hot as a summer night in Havana, it’s disappointing that more of the debate doesn’t focus on the lack of political and economic freedoms on the island, or the status of the hundreds of political and social activists sitting in Cuban jails.

For those who think that Cuba is heading in the ”right direction” of slow reform, look no further than the lightly covered news story that the Castro regime is taking new steps to restrict citizens’ access to communication with the outside world. Specifically, the Cuban government recently imposed new regulations that prohibit Cubans from connecting to the Internet from local hotels, an access point that many activists, students and younger people rely upon to e-mail, post messages and receive precious information about life outside of the island.

Prior to their government’s move to limit access to the Internet, it was estimated that a meager 2 percent of Cubans had access to the World Wide Web, a rate lower than Iran, Belarus or Zimbabwe. Despite the high costs to connect — one hour of wireless access runs about $10, the equivalent of a half-month’s salary — hundreds of Cubans had been successful in using these links to communicate their thoughts and opinions about life and politics. World-renowned blogger-activist Yoani Sanchez regularly posted her witty, satirist musings about life in communist Cuba via connections from local hotels.

Denying free expression
Apparently Fidel and Raúl Castro had seen enough of this free expression and decided to act.

Connecting to the Internet is the least of the problems, however, for the estimated 250-300 political prisoners sitting in Cuban jails. They have been sentenced for trying to freely express themselves, for being entrepreneurial, for not accepting the rigid brand of Cuban communism and for trying to be leaders in a country where only Fidel decides who leads.

Forty-four-year-old Jorge Luis García Pérez Antúnez spent 17 years in Cuban prisons for voicing his opposition to the Cuban government. Known widely in Havana as ”Antúnez,” he conducted a hunger strike during the last few months to draw attention to the plight of his former cellmates who are still serving terms.

Normally this type of action would have generated more jail time, but Antúnez’s high profile likely prevented the Castros from doing that — so he went under house arrest, and his family and visitors are under close watch.

Antúnez’s sister Berta, who escaped Cuba in 2007, recently spoke on Capitol Hill and told her brother’s story. This event lent an important perspective that we should all be considering as we weigh new approaches toward Cuba — the suffering of Antúnez and Cuba’s other political prisoners cannot be forgotten.

Last year a day of solidarity was commemorated to recognize and contemplate the plight of Cubans whose liberties, human rights and pursuits of happiness are limited in ways similar to other closed societies such as North Korea or Burma.

Especially for those of us who are actively engaged in the debate of U.S.-Cuba policy, May 20 should mark a day when we ask additional questions about the real conditions on the island, and apply extra thought to how changes in our policies will truly affect those people, either for the better or for the worse. To engage in the hot Cuba debate without factoring in people like Antúnez or the college students who want to e-mail, Twitter and use Facebook is to ignore who we are as Americans and what we believe in.

So no matter where you fall on the debate, use May 20 to learn more about la realidad de Cuba.

Alex Sutton is the director of programs for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C.


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